Non-communicable DiseasesOther Contributors

What is cancer? The silent aggressive and unwelcome visitor




Unusually painful





These are terms used to describe cancer.

Dr James Mbogo, a Masters Student of Clinical Oncology at Alexandria University in Egypt shares insight on what cancer is, the signs and symptoms and defines terms commonly used in diagnosis, treatment and management.

But first things first!

Dr James Mbogo takes us through a Cancer 101 class

What is cancer?

Dr Mbogo defines cancer as an abnormal proliferation of the body cells. And the National Cancer Institute adds that cancer is not one disease, but the name given to a collection of related diseases. It can start anywhere in the human body. Cancer affects all parts of the body except the teeth,  hair and nails.

It’s interesting to note that cancer cells do not die unless there is a form of medical intervention to deliberately stop their growth. “The cancer cells continue multiplying until they are removed through surgery, or killed through chemotherapy and radiotherapy or until the host dies,” Dr Mbogo said.

The signs and symptoms of cancer depend on the affected organ. For example breast cancer presents with swelling of the breast, dimpling, changes in colour of the breast, lumps or even nipple discharge. In cervical cancer, the signs could be bleeding or persistent pelvic and back pain.

Cancer 101

It’s important to be familiar with some of the commonly used terms.

  • Benign- non cancerous tumor
  • Malignant- cancerous tumour
  • Remission- signs or symptoms of cancer are all or partly gone
  • Oncologist- doctor who treats patients with cancer
  • Radiation therapy-use of  high-energy rays, like x-rays, that treat cancer
  • Chemotherapy-Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.
  • Carcinoma-a cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
  • Sarcoma is a cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.
  • Leukemia is a cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue, such as the bone marrow, and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.
  • Lymphoma and multiple myeloma are cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system

Well, with the advancement in medical technology, there is a new form of radiotherapy that doesnt use x-rays. We will explore this development in coming days.

How is cancer diagnosed?

Dr Mbogo notes the main diagnostic test is a biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure where a sample of the tumour or mass or swelling is taken and examined by a pathologist under a microscope. It’s also called a tissue diagnosis. There are various ways of taking a biopsy like though an endoscope like in stomach or colon tumours, fine needle aspirate (FNA) for thyroid cancers or core biopsy.Essentially, a biopsy test is used to confirm whether a person has cancer whereas imaging is used to stage cancer. Imaging such as MRI, CT scan etc are used to assess extent of the local disease (like size, if invading nearby organs) and to check if the cancer has spread to distant organs like colon cancer spreading to liver.

Since March this year, the PET scan is available in Kenya. For the PET scan, a small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein, and a scanner is used to make detailed, computerized pictures o find cancer cells in the body. The PET scan is more sensitive than the CT scan and  MRI. NHIF is covering the PET on request.

Other ways to arrive at a cancer diagnosis include through a lab test which checks for abnormal cells in your blood that could detect the type of blood cancer. Diagnostic imaging uses electromagnetic radiation to produce images of internal structures of the body whereas in an endoscopic exam, a flexible tube with a light and camera attached to it and the doctor views pictures of your digestive tract on a colour TV monitor.

Other types of tests include genetic tests that identify changes in chromosomes, genes, or proteins. When samples of a tissue are taken from the body, they are examined closely through what is known as a tumour biopsy test.

Determining the stage of cancer

There is a universal staging system that is used to determine how far the cancer has progressed. The stage of the cancer refers to the extent of the cancer, such as how large the tumor is, and if it has spread. It’s important to understand the staging system to understand which areas have been affected and to draw an appropriate treatment plan that will increase your chances of recovery.

The TNM system is the most widely used cancer staging system.

  • T- size and extent of the main tumor. The main tumor is called primary tumor.
  • N- number of nearby lymph nodes that have cancer.
  • M- Has the cancer metastasized? (has it spread to other parts of the body?)

It is further broken down into the following;

Stage Meaning
Stage 0 The tumor cells are present but cannot be detected.
Stage I

Stage II

Stage III


Abnormal cells are present but have not spread to nearby tissue.



Cancer is present. The higher the number, the larger the cancer tumor and the more it has spread into nearby tissues.

Stage IV The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body.

Way forward

So whether you have just been diagnosed with cancer, have a loved one bravely fighting cancer or if you are generally creating awareness, always remember that a positive attitude manages it all. And when the going gets tough, keep in mind that when it rains, it’s time to look up for the rainbow and when it gets dark, look up for the stars.

Support the mind, to support the body too!!

We can beat cancer!!!

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